Please note this article was published on 16 March 2020 and guidance may have changed by the time you read this. Please visit https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/ for any updates.
As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has evolved, we have been asked many questions by employers about how to manage their obligations to staff and the impact it will have on their businesses in the UK. Rooney Nimmo partner Dawn Robertson gives guidance on some of the most pressing questions below.
Q: When must an employee isolate themselves?
A: According to NHS guidelines, individuals must self-isolate at home for at least seven days if they have either a high temperature or a new continuous cough. They recommend not going to your GP, a pharmacy or hospital. Here is their advice for those staying at home. If the employee does not know whether they need to self-isolate, they should call 111 (in the UK) for advice and not attend work until they have a clear understanding of their condition.
Q: What are our obligations as employers to our staff?
A: You must fulfill your duty of care to your staff, which means (among other things) taking reasonable care for their health and safety. As such, you should keep abreast of developments in Government policy on an hourly/daily basis. Keep a check on these websites, depending on where in the UK your business is based:
As a precaution to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, the Advisory Conciliation and Advisory Service (ACAS) recommends that it is good practice for an employer to:
- Keep everyone updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure in the workplace;
- Make sure everyone’s contact numbers and emergency contact details are up to date;
- Make sure managers know how to spot symptoms of coronavirus and are clear on any relevant processes, for example, sickness reporting and sick pay, and procedures that are in place in case someone in the workplace shows symptoms of the virus;
- Make sure there are clean places to wash hands with hot water and soap and encourage everyone to wash their hands regularly;
- Provide hand sanitiser and tissues for staff, and encourage them to use them; and
- Reconsider any travel to affected areas.
Q: Most of my staff have children. What happens if the schools and nurseries are closed?
A: School and nursery closures will affect a huge number of employees and their employers.
Parental leave is a form of statutory unpaid leave available to some working parents in addition to statutory maternity, paternity and adoption leave and shared parental leave. The total amount of unpaid leave that can be taken per child is 18 weeks. The age limit for children for whom parental leave can be taken changed so that leave can now be taken up until a child’s 18th birthday. Unlike maternity and paternity leave, parental leave can be flexible in terms of the time at which it is taken and the way in which the total leave entitlement may be split up into a number of shorter periods.
Parental leave is available to birth and adoptive parents and also to anyone who has or expects to have, parental responsibility for a child. The right applies for each child but is only available to employees who have been employed for at least one year. Therefore, an employee with one qualifying child may normally take 18 weeks leave; an employee with two children would be entitled to 36 weeks leave in total; and so on.
In addition, you may receive requests for additional time off, either to be taken as holiday or as unpaid leave. Where possible, you should give serious consideration to requests to work from home as this may assist with business continuity in such difficult times, particularly where it is unclear when normal life might resume.
Q: What am I obliged to pay someone who is self-isolating?
A: The advice being given by ACAS states that employees and workers must receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) due to them if they need to self-isolate.
Emergency legislation announced by the UK Government on 4 March promises to give anyone entitled to statutory sick pay the right to SSP from Day 1 of the self-isolation, rather than the usual four-day waiting period, but according to the BBC, the debate is far from over. The change wasn’t included in the current legislation, but we expect that to change.
According to news reports, the UK government will also meet the cost of coronavirus statutory sick pay for small businesses with up to 250 employees for 14 days, providing over £2 billion for up to two million businesses.
The approach we are adopting in relation to Company Sick Pay (CSP) is that the normal sickness absence provisions should apply and therefore unless your business has specifically said that it will pay sick pay to persons self-isolating, CSP should remain available only to those employees who are actually sick. If CSP is given on a discretionary basis please see the question on ‘discretionary sick pay’.
Where possible, you should allow for those self-isolating employees to work from home rather than simply be off and paid SSP. However, it is important to be prepared for the issues associated with managing a large remote workforce in order to protect your business, such as:
- Keeping tabs on workflow – staff still need to report in as employer owes a duty of care;
- Cybersecurity issues, bearing in mind employees may be communicating from less secure systems and/or using personal devices; and
- Data protection issues, with some employees, potentially using personal devices to access/store company data.
Q: Many of our staff are zero-hours-contract workers, agency workers, and contractors. Are they entitled to sick pay?
Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is available to zero-hours-contract workers and agency workers as long as:
- They’ve done some work for you;
- They’re ill for four days or more in a row (including days off);
- They follow your rules about reporting sickness—or tell you within seven days; and
- They earned on average at least £118 per week (before tax) in the past eight weeks.
The minimum weekly income has to come from one employer. If a worker relies on multiple jobs to reach this wage, they may not be eligible for SSP.
The same rules apply to contractors. In addition, they must also have at least one qualifying day a week – the SSP will be pro-rated to the number of qualifying days per week a contractor actually works. They are classed as an employee of their own limited company and will, therefore, be entitled to SSP via their own employer.
Q: Our business will be massively affected in financial terms by coronavirus, meaning that we will not be able to keep our current level of staffing. What can we do?
A: There are a number of steps that an employer can take to minimise the financial implications of the current situation. Short time working, layoffs and, if necessary, redundancies are all possible options, however regrettable, depending on individual contracts of employment and the exact circumstances.
Q: We offer Company Sick Pay (CSP) on a discretionary basis in our employees’ contracts. Do we have to honour this?
A: Where CSP is offered on a discretionary basis, it may be withdrawn. This only applies where the employment contract specifically states that CSP is at the employer’s discretion. It is reasonable for the company to make this decision in order to try to maximise the longevity of people’s overall employment. The wider availability of SSP also means that the employees have some protection with regard to continuous earnings. However, there is obviously a significant gap (in most cases) between SSP and normal pay or CSP.
If you need advice on any of the issues surrounding the impact of Coronavirus on your employees and business overall, please contact Rooney Nimmo partner, Dawn Robertson or your usual contact in the firm.
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